Early spring sunshine shimmered through Oxford Westgate’s open ceilings and on to the walkways below as Drapers arrived to put the centre’s footwear offer under the microscope.
The results of our visit proved equally bright. Retailers were divided into footwear specialists and high street clothing stores, before being judged on product, presentation, customer service, value for money and overall shopping experience.
In general, the footwear specialists had the edge, but there was lots to praise from both. Much of the spring 18 product on offer was tempting and attractive, while well-presented stores made for a pleasant shopping experience.
Of course, the centre is brand new (it opened in October 2017), so we were viewing merchandise against a backdrop of the latest store designs and fits. However, where Westgate really sparkled was customer service, something which has often been lacking on other Hit or Miss visits. Schuh, JD Sports, Office and Russell & Bromley all impressed with friendly, attentive staff who were genuinely pleased to help. Drapers visited on 21 March.
Find a store
A mix of white trainers and simple silver slip-ons on display in Next’s large windows are not the most exciting spring styles to draw in customers. However, it gets better as I enter the store: I immediately notice the pretty pastel pink and purple heels (£35-£38) on a gaggle of mannequins.
The women’s footwear section is in a prominent location and is one of the best presented I see all day. The fittings and attention to detail create a premium atmosphere that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the non-specialist chains.
Luxurious navy velvet seating contrasts well with the rich orange carpet. Large campaign pictures in sleek black frames, and an array of plants and quirky signs add to the ambience. Customers would be happy to linger as they try on styles in this relaxed space.
Upstairs, the men’s section is equally strong. Shoes are presented on smart marble counters, and enamel detailing on the wooden shelve s is a nice finishing touch. Green leather seating ties into the overall vintage feel.
I easily find the silver slip-ons (£25) from the window and the mannequins’ pastel heels on the shop floor. And there is plenty more eye-catching product. Glittery lilac slingbacks (£36) are a fun spring shoe unlike anything I see elsewhere, and the price feels fair for the unusual design and level of detail. Men’s leather boots (£58) and suede chukka boots (£60) look heavy duty and durable while still being a well-priced and stylish choice.
A member of staff is on hand in both sections and I hear her greet customers. She helpfully asks whether the shoes fit and are comfortable, and is also friendly, tellingme how much she likes my choice. Next’s winning combination of product and service makes for a five-star shopping experience.
New look score
A large section of the store’s second floor has been dedicated to women’s shoes. White lights spelling out “hearts” and “love” add a feminine touch to the contrasting white shelves and dark floors. Both mirrors and seating are well placed and plentiful.
Selected styles are displayed in some nice, neat but basic displays. It is a pleasant enough place to shop, without feeling particularly special.
The men’s section is much smaller and offers considerably less choice, although the industrial-style leather seating could have been borrowed from a more premium store.
Both sections are clean and tidy, and everything is in order. Despite the large selection, I find it easy to navigate the womenswear section. Shoes are sensibly grouped together in blocks of similar styles and colours. Shoppers looking for evening shoes are well catered for by an array of embellished and glitter designs at prices that are competitive.
The level of detail on some champagne-coloured heels with crystal straps (£30) represents good value for money. Burnt orange ankle boots (£25.99) cover the cowboy trend and the bright colour provides a spring-appropriate twist to a cold-weather classic.
But overall the New Look offer feels repetitive and samey – there are rows and rows of relatively similar styles. There is little trend-forward product and there is not much I haven’t seen before.
Unusually for a footwear section within a high street retailer, there are staff on the shop floor, which is good. When I cannot see one of the displayed styles on the shop floor, a member of staff is friendly and happy to check for me. But there is no offer to order it into store, which would have scored extra points.
Mannequins in H&M’s windows are wearing plain black sandals, although the more exciting campaign imagery features some interesting spring styles.
Women’s footwear is easy to find near the front of the store and, despite a relatively large Sale section, is tidy. The men’s section, where styles sit on elegant black shelves, is also ship-shape.
However, compared with other high street retailers, such as River Island and New Look, choice is modest across both sections, and feels particularly limited in the smaller men’s area. This gives the impression that footwear is something of an afterthought.
Summery espadrilles and backless loafers from the campaign images are not on the shop floor, which is disappointing, and overall the product is not as trend-forward as one would expect from this fast fashion stalwart.
But prices are competitive. White trainers with a pretty floral motif (£19.99) and block-coloured sneakers in mint green (£17.99) are strong spring styles at an attractive price point. Some design details and finishes help elevate product – for example, white stitching on men’s chunky brown combat boots (£39.99) makes them look as though they could be from a more expensive store.
H&M’s footwear offer is self-service, so customers find their own sizes from the stock on the shop floor. The only staff present during my visit are at the nearby till. As I wait in the queue, I hear a staff member help customers in a polite and friendly manner. She is equally pleasant when serving me, but unable to tell me whether the trainers I am interested in come in a size 7 or just a 7.5, and offers no further assistance, telling me “all available sizes are out on the shop floor”.
Slingbacks in a bright orange-red – a key colour for the season – catch my eye in Primark’s summery windows. This is a large store, but prominent signs at the entrance direct me towards footwear.
There is some eye-catching visual merchandising around, which elevates the overall store experience. In women’s footwear, styles are displayed in perspex cubes, while a yellow-and-black graphic wall adds a quirky touch in the men’s section.
This branch is considerably tidier than other Primark stores encountered on previous Hit or Miss trips, but there are some shoes left on the floor, and discarded shopping lies on the basic seating in the women’s section, which is a shame when overall standards are higher.
As ever, when it comes to low prices Primark cannot be matched. The level of design details make some styles bargains – red patent heels with cut-out sides (£12), feather-trimmed cream heels (£12), sparkly pool sliders (£4) and discounted flip-flops (reduced to 90p). Those looking to get their summer holiday shopping done at value prices are well catered for.
Men’s sports-inspired trainers are a convincing take on styles from more premium activewear brands, such as a black pair with straps (£14) and camouflage print (£12). Simple navy slip-ons at £3.50 are a steal.
Customers looking for the best possible deals will not be disappointed. Nevertheless, quality suffers in places. Men’s navy fake suede desert boots (£16) feel more cheaply finished than similar styles elsewhere, but then they are a fraction of the price.
Primark is another retailer that subscribes to the self-service model in its footwear section. There are a couple of staff members replenishing stock in the womenswear area but when I ask for a particular size, I am briskly told all sizes are already out on the shop floor.
I do not see any staff in the menswear section.
River island score
The footwear on display in River Island’s windows is considerably more interesting than the basic styles adorning mannequins’ feet at other trend-led retailers such as H&M. A pair of black suede Western boots (relatively good value at £48) and chunky white trainers (£42) stand out.
I find them both inside the store’s spacious shoe area, but not so easy to locate are the distinctive crocodile print mules (£44) from the window, which is frustrating.
Twinkly lights and a white neon sign in womenswear declaring “Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world” create an air of girly gloss, but this is marred by scuffed walls, and general wear and tear starting to show in places. There is an abandoned sandal in the middle of the floor and a discarded blazer lies in the seating area.
Racks of simple plimsolls (£24-£26) in a variety of colours are a good-value wardrobe staple, but a larger selection of more trend-focused product would have been welcome.
However, the Western trend spotted on both the spring and autumn 18 catwalks is well covered at River Island – as well as the black cowboy boots from the windows, I am tempted by a pair of dark orange ankle boots with studded trim (£55), where the level of detail justifies the slightly higher price.
Upstairs, menswear feels polished and better maintained. Knitted grey trainers (£25) are a good-value take on the trend and navy brogues with contrast stitching (£55) feel like they are made to last.
Service is a mixed bag. There are no staff in the women’s section, but someone at a nearby till sees me waiting and comes over. She is helpful and friendly but struggles to check availability because one stock-checking device is not working and the other’s battery is dead. She eventually goes to the stock room. This takes some time and my size is not available, but she offers to order it into store.
Jd sports score
Loud music is pumping out of the glass frontage of JD Sports into the calm of the surrounding shopping centre, in keeping with the retailer’s urban, sports-focused market position. Everything about the store feels vibrant. Pops of bright yellow mesh and trainers displayed on neon green, red and blue glass in the window create an engaging store front. Images of the spires of Oxford around the inside of the shop are a nod to the local area.
The layout is clear and it is a pleasure to shop in the delineated men’s and women’s areas.
JD Sports bills itself as the “king of trainers” and all the big names – including Nike, New Balance, Vans, Puma and Adidas – are well represented without making the shop feel cluttered.
Arranging the assortment by brand and having clear visual merchandising for key labels prevents such a wide selection from becoming overwhelming.
The trainers market is increasingly saturated, but JD Sports excels in highlighting its exclusive styles with distinctive tags to give its offer a point of difference – for example, a chunky pair of men’s Nike Air Max with blue-and-grey side details (£120).
I spot some good deals, including a pair of pale pink New Balance trainers reduced from £57 to £45 and white Fila trainers reduced from £60 to £20.
Where JD Sports really shines is service – the staff offer the best experience of the day.
As I browse, I hear assistants asking unprompted other shoppers if they need help. The staff member who serves me is able to check stock on a handheld device and promptly brings my selections to me.
He also undoes the laces for me before performing a proper fit check, asking where my toes sit in the shoe and whether they feel too tight.
Deciding I need a bigger size, he shows me to an in-store digital kiosk and helps me find the style so I can order it. The entire interaction is genuinely engaging and helpful.
Digital screens display bright campaign videos, which adds a dynamic element to Schuh’s windows and draws eyes to its frontage. Mismatched grey shapes around the bright green Schuh logo and sculptural lighting inside continue the playful feel of the store’s design concept.
There is a vast array of styles but the floor is split clearly into men’s and women’s, and divided further by brand.
Schuh has a wider range of accessories than I find in other specialists, including printed backpacks from Hype (from £25), which is a welcome addition to the offer.
Schuh’s offer feels more spring focused than some of other retailers I visit. There is a wide choice of pool sliders and also plenty of embroidery-embellished trainers, such as a pair of Adidas Stan Smiths with flowers on the tongue (£80) and Fila sneakers adorned with pink roses (£65). Both are styles I do not see anywhere else.
Prices for the big sports brands are on par with other specialists. Silver glitter own-brand trainers (£35) are a good value update on the trend. An eye-catching range of tie-dye-patterned Adidas trainers in powder blue and red (£80) add a point of difference to the men’s range. This is an offer that really stands out.
I am also impressed by the level of service. When my size is not available, the staff member I approach checks the retailer’s nearby Magdalen Street store without being asked, and prints off directions when I say it is my first time in the city.
Another helps me with the style I want to try on that Westgate does have in stock. She is helpful and chatty without being over the top or pushy. She suggests insoles when it comes up larger than expected, and also brings me the next size when I ask for it.
Office has drawn on Oxford’s famous architecture for its Westgate store interior. The top half of the double-height space features a dot-work image of the city’s domes and spires.
A good selection of trainers, boots and brogues are on display in the window below, and the overall impression is inviting.
Campaign imagery shot on spring-appropriate pink and purple backgrounds add a splash of colour to the bright store. Smart grey textured leather seating blocks and sleek wooden shelves in the menswear section help elevate a simple but effective shopfit.
The varied mix of product covers all occasions. There is an array of trainers, including an exclusive range of pastel Converse (£64.99) and dove grey platform Supergas with ribbon laces (£66.99), both relatively good value in the pricey branded trainers category.
Office adds red and yellow suede tassels to the key women’s loafer style (£65), which is bright and fun, if a little flimsy for the price tag.
By contrast, a pair of own-brand men’s boots with fleece lining (£80) feel extremely sturdy and good quality. Although not a spring product, the visit takes place during a cold snap, so shoppers may well still be buying boots.
Service here is spot on. Two staff members are working hard to give customers a good experience. I’m greeted as I enter, as are other shoppers, and staff make sure they are visible and ready to help. One assistant double checks that I’m being served when she sees me waiting. The staff seem natural and chatty, and offer advice on how different styles from within the same brand fit, depending on whether the finish is leather or suede, which shows they know the products.
Russell & bromley score
Russell & Bromley
A monochrome storefront gives Russell & Bromley a premium feel that reflects its positioning at the top end of the high street. Windows are uncluttered and simple, although slightly uninspiring, and show off a selection of heavily embellished women’s trainers, men’s loafers, belts and bags.
The interior of the store is similarly understated but well executed. Thick carpet, soft lighting and pale shelves continue the luxury theme. There is plenty of seating and shoe horns are left out for customers, which is a thoughtful touch.
Product has an attractive, distinct handwriting that is unique to Russell & Bromley. The catwalk trend for maximalist trainers, complete with embroidery and embellishment, is well represented. An oversized sparkling gem bow and glitter detail turn otherwise plain leather trainers
into a statement shoe (£225). The same bow appears on glitter block-heeled sandals (£245) for an evening look.
Appliqué leopard print stars and metallic red panels are another interesting addition to white sneakers (£195).
Russell & Bromley is well known for its loafers, and its on-trend backless versions, including a tortoise print patent (£225), are a seasonal update on a classic style.
Both the bow trainers and leopard print sneakers are comfortable when I try them on, although the price feels steep. Top-quality construction and premium design details take some of the sting out of the price tags.
There is some great customer service happening in store. Staff are helping a couple deliberating between several styles when I enter, spending plenty of time with them. I’m offered assistance promptly, and given advice on sizing and styles.
The Skechers store has been designed with an urban construction, and, through the front window, shoppers are given views of the dark tones and exposed brickwork interior.
Product is showcased against campaign imagery advertising the brand’s collaboration with singer Camila Cabello, which provides a point of interest. I am also impressed by the presence of key trends, such as statement laces, in the window display.
A large spherical light creates a focal point as customers enter the store. Product is displayed on industrial-style tables softened by flower arrangements dotted around – a detail that adds to the ambience of an overall welcoming environment.
Digital screens throughout are another attention-grabbing element of the store design. Comfort is key to Skechers’ offer and there are plenty of helpful signs and visual merchandising around to explain the various ranges. Styles for specific activities, such as running, walking and golf, are also clearly differentiated.
Unlike many other retailers, Skechers’ focus is on performance over fashion trends, but even so, the in-store offer looks samey here. There is plenty of choice, but only a few styles truly stand out on the shelves.
I try on the metallic trainers with pink laces (£59) I spotted in the window, and I am impressed by the quality and finish. Memory foam insoles provide a very comfortable fit, on par with the considerably more expensive products at Russell & Bromley. Men’s knitted trainers blend comfort technology and style, and are good value at £64.
Staff stay clustered around the till chatting when I enter the store but they do come to assist after a few minutes. The service is good. A member of staff brings my choices swiftly, helping to tie laces and giving advice.